Freire goes for gold

Oscar Freire of Rabobank went for gold on Sunday, winning the stage and taking over the leader's golden jersey in the second stage of the Vuelta a España. He outsprinted Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step-Innergetic) and Leonardo Duque (Cofidis) out of a field that had been dramatically reduced by a mass crash some two kilometres before the finish line. Based on his first place today and his second place in the first stage, he took over the lead from Daniele Bennati, who was involved in the crash. Because the crash occurred within the three-kilometre "neutralized" zone, the Lampre sprinter was awarded the same time as the winner, but came in as 186th, or next to last in the main group. Erik Zabel of Milram finished fourth on the day to move up to second overall and Duque took third place.

It is the first leader's jersey ever in a Grand Tour for Freire. "I was close yesterday. I didn't feel well during the whole stage [stage 1 - ed.]," Freire told Spanish television TVE. "Today it was different; besides, the finale suited me better considering my characteristics and I think I did well. Besides, I got the leader jersey which is the first time for me. So, I am doubly happy."

Freire was also involved in the crash, but managed to get past it. "Today's crash was quite near the front. When I was falling, I touched Bennati. I thought I tangled with him and I also fell but in the end I saved myself. I didn't look back. I don't even know how many riders were involved." He added, "Let's see if they change the race rules so that the final time is measured when we enter the city and not in the last three kilometers as they are currently doing. There seem to be more crashes with the [three-kilometre] rule.... Because of it, a rider like Pereiro, who fell down, could have lost all his overall win hopes."

Pereiro was the most notable victim of the crash. He rode to the finish line with a team-mate's hand on his back, and a soigneur was there to help the Caisse d'Epargne rider, who looked to have hurt his right leg.

The 150 kilometre course from Allariz to Santiago de Compostela was marked by a long escape by riders from the three Spanish Professional Continental teams which had received wild-card invitations to the race. The peloton never let them more than four minutes ahead, and finally gobbled them up with only a few kilometers to go.

Monday's stage runs 153 km from Viveiro and Luarca. It features three Cat. 3 climbs and one Cat. 2, but the flat finale calls for another sprint finish. That will be the last one for a while, as the race then moves into the mountains.

How it unfolded

Today's stage ended up in the famous Santiago de Compostela. This town is known worldwide because of its beautiful cathedral and its nice old town. Santiago was considered a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1985. The cathedral was built around the year 1075 a. C. in honour to St. James (Santiago apostle). Besides, the Spanish 1, 2 and 5-cent coins have this famous and big building on the flip side.

188 riders took the start in Allariz as America's Tom Danielson (Discovery Channel) was the only rider who left the race due to his broken right shoulder blade. Early on in the day, three riders dared to attack at kilometre three and they were Gustavo Dominguez Lemos (Karpin Galicia), Raul Garcia de Mateo (Relax Gam) and Manuel Vazquez Hueso (Andalucia Caja Sur). In the first intermediate sprint at Orense after just 15kiloemtres, the trio led by two minutes and two seconds over the peloton.

The leaders were able to maintain a small gap of just above three minutes throughout many kilometres. But the big group had control of the race and in the second half of the stage Milram, Lampre and other teams pulled hard at the front to reduce the distance to the trio up front. The leaders' advantage was cropped to 2'16" at kilometre 91. Meanwhile, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) held on despite his injuries following yesterday's hard crash.

In A Estrada with 44 kilometres to go, some fans showed his appreciation for Galician Oscar Pereiro (Caisse D'Epargne) with a big billboard that had his name written on it. Later in the race, Milram riders, helped by Rabobank and Lampre, put up a faster tempo and reduced the gap to one minute and 45 seconds with 34 kilometres to the finish line. At the 20-kilometre to go banner the trio led by just 38 seconds. Their adventure was almost over. Behind, Angel Gomez (Saunier Duval) got rid of the bunch trying to catch the top three and achieved his goal with 16 kilometres to the end, but as expected, the peloton swallowed the four leaders a short time later.

As soon as the bunch got together, Francisco Martinez (Relax Gam) attacked, as did Gustavo Cesar (Karpin Galicia), but those moves didn't go anywhere. The sprinters' outfits knew clearly this was a big chance for a win, so they controlled the race.

The last five kilometres were extremely fast with a 70-kilometre per hour average at some parts. Liquigas led the peloton with Milram close behind. With just two kilometres to go, a massive crash happened in the middle of the big group that affected more than half the peloton, including race leader Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital) and Oscar Pereiro. Most of the top sprinters were at the very front and saved from injuries.

Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux) was trying to spoil the sprinter's party anyway and took off with about 1500 metres remaining. The Belgian soloed for more than a kilometre, but Milram still had most of the team on the front, so the move was doomed.

In the final sprint, Erik Zabel made his move, but Oscar Freire got a perfect place behind and found the right time to move from the right to the centre of the road past Zabel and crossed the finish line in first place. Paolo Bettini came from the far right and finished second while Leonardo Duque was third. It was a great day for Freire who got his first Grand Tour leader jersey and his first win in months.

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